BANGKOK - Thai police ended their search of Thailand's biggest temple on Friday after laying siege to it for more than three weeks without finding the former abbot, who is wanted for suspected money-laundering.
The standoff at the Dhammakaya temple between thousands of police and saffron-robed monks has posed one of the greatest challenges to the military government since it took power in 2014 and largely neutralised opposition.
The influential Phra Dhammachayo, 72, is wanted for questioning for suspected money-laundering and numerous charges of building on land without authorisation.
But there are deeper roots to a confrontation between the military-led and royalist establishment and a scandal-hit temple whose practices jar with conservatives and which is widely seen as having had links to an ousted populist movement.
Paisit Wongmuang, director-general of the police Department of Special Investigation, told reporters after another day of searching on Friday that the authorities would still try to track down Phra Dhammachayo.
But restrictions on the temple area would be lifted and"when everything returns to normal" the police would ask the government to lift the Article 44 emergency law under which the security forces entered the temple.
"We are glad the there is a sign of peaceful resolution but cannot rest assured until Article 44 is revoked," senior monk Phra Pasura Dantamano told Reuters.
Thailand's top religious body, meanwhile, gave a green light for the first step in a process that could lead to the disrobing of the monk.
Phra Dhammachayo has been stripped of his monastic rank by King Maha Vajiralongkorn, but secular authorities have no power to remove the protection afforded by his monk's robes.
The head of the National Office of Buddhism, Pongporn Pramsaneh, told reporters that the top religious body, the Supreme Sangha Council, acknowledged the case against Phra Dhammachayo at a meeting on Friday.